Your Church or Mine?

The pros and cons of Anglican schism.

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Schism in the worldwide Anglican Church is now a real possibility. The threat began with the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and has intensified since the election last month of the Right Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori as national leader of the Episcopal Church (the American arm of Anglicanism). This could mean that the churches in the United States and Canada that bless same-sex relationships become isolated, while a small but well-funded conservative group of North American parishes joins the global church, composed of 75 million people in 164 countries.

If it were to occur, would schism be ruinous? The downside would be the damage inflicted on poor recipients overseas of aid that comes from the U.S. church and on a central historical tenet of Anglicanism as a middle way between extremes of belief. The exclusion of North America from the international councils of the Anglican Communion would also diminish the church’s traditional unifying institutions. But the threat of schism isn’t all bad news. The present crisis offers the opportunity to question the largely clerical and male makeup of the international councils that hold decision-making power in the church—questions that are overdue.

First, though, the costs. In 2003, the relief and development agency of the American Episcopal Church sent $5.5 million to churches in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The money was designated for primary health cases, HIV and AIDS protection, and emergency relief. Since Bishop Robinson’s election that year, the ecclesiastical leaderships in Nigeria, Uganda, and Singapore have refused to accept any aid from the development agency of the American church. It is one thing for an archbishop to refuse expenses-paid trips to the United States for the sake of doctrinal purity. It is another to refuse aid for women and children in countries like Nigeria, where the annual per capita income is $1,400 and the rate of child mortality is 97 deaths per 1,000. Such actions lose sight of the Gospel. References in the New Testament to the needs of widows, orphans, and the poor outnumber references to the evils of homosexual behavior by at least 50 to 1.

Schism would also call into question a central component of Anglican theology. The quintessential Anglican document is the 16th-century Elizabethan compromise, which sought to keep English Catholics and Protestants together in the Church of England by emphasizing the importance of uniform practice rather than uniform belief. Ditto the Latin phrase memorized by every Episcopal seminarian, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, or “prayer shapes belief.” It’s at odds with the historical definition of orthodoxy to make views on homosexuality the litmus test for who’s in and who’s out of the Anglican Communion. The shift bears the distinctly un-Anglican influence of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a watchdog organization founded in 1982 that has fomented division in the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations by targeting church leaders who, according to the IRD’s Web site, have “turned towards … radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation and so forth.”

Finally, division would hurt the international councils of the global church. Every decade, 800-plus Anglican bishops gather at the Lambeth Conference, held at Lambeth Palace in England. They debate and pass resolutions on topics ranging from international debt relief to the practice of polygamy. Because the Anglican Church lacks a single central authority, Lambeth Resolutions are the closest thing Anglicans have to current guidance on how to live as a person of faith. If bishops from the United States and Canada were excluded from the next Lambeth Conference, scheduled for 2008, members of the North American churches would be robbed, at least temporarily, of learning about how the Gospel is practiced and experienced in parts of the developing world, and of contributing their beliefs to the global mix.

The possibility of rupture also offers opportunity, however. In the last few years, an increasing number of Anglican women have gathered for two weeks as delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This year, the 98 Anglican delegates included the director of an Egyptian church-based school for deaf children and the head of the Mothers Union in Uganda, who runs domestic-violence programs for men out of village bars and has adopted eight children orphaned by AIDS. Between official sessions, Anglican delegates worshipped together and briefed each other. We heard about the increased attacks on churches in Pakistan that followed the publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed; the conditions of the church in Rwanda more than a decade after the genocide there; and the per-crate wages for Mexican migrant workers outside Miami.

This network of women is already making its influence felt. Last month, the same national General Convention in the United States that elected Schori as Presiding Bishop also passed a resolution calling for equal representation of men and women in church decision-making—a resolution written and promoted by the international Anglican delegates at last year’s U.N. gathering. Schism could give the Anglican women’s group at the U.N. a higher profile and more opportunity to affect the course of the church as a whole.